Love that "Mad Men" style? Many of the products sold by Don Draper and his colleagues on the AMC hit show were invented right here in the Delaware Valley. A lecture during Design Philadelphia—a 10-day-long festival showcasing the city's creative industries—explores the region's role in revolutionizing fashion and interior design in the 1960s.
Handsome and troubled ad man Don Draper catapulted himself into the hearts of fans in the very first episode of "Mad Men" with this cynical line: "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."
The voluptuous form of Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, can be attributed to synthetic fibers developed in the Delaware Valley. (Photo courtesy of AMC)
And those nylons Draper is selling were invented right here in the Delaware Valley, says Regina Blaszczyk, who studies the history of science as a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
"During the 'Mad Men' era, DuPont really was the largest chemical company in the world," explained Blaszczyk. "DuPont was a world leader in fibers, and saw the potential for building on the invention of nylon, because it had invented a type of nylon in the 1930s."
Blaszczyk says a family of new synthetic fibers developed by the Delaware company revolutionized the fashion industry, allowing for brighter colorsand new styles. The look of "Mad Men" character Joan is made possible in part by these new fibers.
"She is lifted and separated and shaped into a voluptuous form," said Blaszczyk, "and it's the stretchability and the flexibility of these new synthetic fibers, their elasticity, that allow the bra and girdle to do that as opposed to a cotton bra which would not be flexible."
"Mad Men" has sparked a retro fashion craze that goes way beyond emulating the sleek look of the characters. 1960s interior design is also making a comeback.
A post on one popular fan blog reads: "Help! I'm in love with the paint color in the Drapers' foyer, and have been searching for the paint name/manufacturer."
Regina Blaszczyk says the enviable walls seen in the Mad Men offices and homes were made possible by new paints invented by another local chemical company, Rohm and Haas. Rohm and Haas used its knowledge in acrylic technology to develop new paints that were safer and faster-drying and easier to use. Gone were oil-based, lead-filled paints, which had made the painting process cumbersome and toxic.
Blaszczyk says DuPont was driving up paint sales with a clever marketing campaign around color psychology. "It had a program called color conditioning," said Blaszczyk. "Professional colorists were hired by DuPont, for example a guy named Faber Birren who was the foremost colorist of the 20th century. The idea was that you would use color psychology to improve worker mood in the office space and factory."
Advertising executives at the time were selling the idea that fast-drying paints meant the freedom to experiment. Catchy jingles promised comsumers any shade of color, any time they wanted to apply it.
Blaszczyk says advertising played a crucial role in explaining a vast array of new products to consumers, and creating desire for them. Then, if you wanted to be a credible competitor, you had to have a New York address.
In the 1960s, DuPont operated a sales office that occupied two whole floors on the Empire State Building. And so these sales people were constantly pushing and marketing DuPont products and working with the Madison Avenue advertising agencies to develop ad campaigns.
Blaszczyk says watching Mad Men doesn't make her nostalgic for the 1960s, but it puts on display the connection between economy and culture—and offers a chance to connect the dots between the look of things and the inventions that make them possible.
Her lecture "Mad Men Chic" takes place at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, at 6 p.m.
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